Wren Smith: Training People to See Nature
At Bernheim Arboretum and Research Forest, naturalist Wren Smith helps people see things�rose-breasted grosbeaks tucked away in the treetops, spittle bugs concealing themselves in frothy clouds of plant sap and insect saliva, white snakeroot lurking at the edge of the woods�"the plant that, many claim, killed Lincoln's mother."
Wren Smith, Interpretive Programs manager at Bernheim Arboretum and Research Forest, feels like people noticing Kentucky's astounding natural diversity is key to keeping it alive.
"When people can really see nature," she explains, "they might try to understand it better, which will then help them to love it." And passing this love along to others completes the magic formula.
The Kentucky Society of Natural History named Smith Naturalist of the Year for 2010, and the National Association for Interpretation awarded her their Master Front-Line Interpreter award for 2011. Her philosophy of vision, passion, and preservation helped earn her these honors.
Smith opens a late spring insect-identification workshop by inviting participants to step outside and find a bug to spend some time with. "Just observe it," she says, "see what it's up to today." One participant describes a tiny white spider (though technically it is not an insect) with a nervous tic constantly crisscrossing a leaf, as if looking for a lost set of keys. Another tells of a tiger swallowtail butterfly laboriously cleaning itself, exactly like a cat.
This class is not just about the bugs, but the students' shared experience of them. Everyone is eager to hear what others have seen, and how they have seen it. Bernheim's mission is to connect people with nature, but Smith's programs take it further, connecting people with people through their love of nature, for the benefit of the humans and the environment alike.
In her class on tree identification, Smith is always surprised to find how many Kentuckians can't tell a sweetgum from a sycamore, an oak from an elm, but the good news is, they are excited to learn. "Role models passionate about nature will help kids keep it alive," she explains.
Given the decline of family farms and the decreasing rural population, Smith is concerned that we are losing our "personal connections" with the outdoor world, and our ability to pass these on. Smith fondly recalls her father's passion for gathering walnuts, persimmons, and pawpaws, the fishing trips he organized, and "his eye for the unique in nature." Her father, the late Morris Addison Smith, also inspired the family tradition of visiting Bernheim twice a year, where she was taught to see not only nature's wonders, but naturalists in action.
To understand the importance of seeing, Smith asks us to consider a child who brings Mom a bouquet of dandelions. If Mom frowns and says, "Oh, those are just a bunch of weeds," she is telling the child how to see, and what to value. "Children study everything intently," Smith notes, "until adults convince them that only some things warrant our attention."
Her concern is that nature doesn't always rank among those things most worthy of notice these days. "We humans�see what interests us, and what we've been trained to notice, often because we know that it interests others, because it has been socially sanctioned as significant." Smith is working to change the way Kentucky sees itself. Alluding to the poet William Wordsworth, who said, "The child is the father of the man," she says, "you become what you see."
In her summer Eat-a-Weed class, Smith helps participants to see that not only are dandelions beautiful, they are also delicious. She even bakes the blossoms into a golden quiche you can sample at the end of the class.
Smith's young colleague, Whitney Wurzel, proves that Smith is upholding the tradition of nature-lovers inspiring nature-lovers. Now Bernheim's Youth & Family Programs manager, Whitney first met Smith when she visited the park as a high school student. Whitney recalls her first impression of Smith: "That's what I want to be when I grow up, I said. Wren was my rock star hero!"
Whitney went away to school, but kept in touch with Smith by volunteering at Bernheim seasonally. After working for the National Park Service in South Carolina, she's come home to Bernheim now.
VISITING BERNHEIM ARBORETUM AND RESEARCH FOREST
Bernheim Arboretum and Research Forest is open from 7 a.m. until sunset daily, closed only on December 25 and January 1. The visitor's center and the gift shop are open daily from 9 a.m.-5 p.m., and Isaac's Cafe is open 11 a.m.-4:00 p.m. Admission is free for members and for nonmembers on weekdays. On weekends, there is a $5 environmental impact fee per automobile for nonmembers ($10 for buses with more than 20 passengers).
Bernheim is located just off I-65 at mile marker 112. At the exit, take State Route 245 toward Clermont, and proceed to the park entrance on the right about a mile from the interstate.
BloomFest Celebrate the beauties of spring: Saturday, May 19, 10 a.m.-4 p.m.
BugFest Learn to love the insects of summer: Saturday, September 15, 11 a.m.-4 p.m.
Connect An evening of art, music, science, and technology: Saturday, August 25, 6:22 p.m.-10:22 p.m. (two hours before and until two hours after sunset)
ColorFest See autumn's palette on display, Saturday and Sunday: October 20, 10 a.m.-5 p.m., and October 21, noon-5 p.m.
ECO (Every Child Outside) Kids Discovery Day Opportunities for children and their families to live and learn in the wild, first and third Saturday of each month.
Forest Forays Quarterly program series to visit remote areas of the forest with scientists, botanists, geologists, and other experts.
Smart Gardens and Landscapes Monthly workshop teaching the art of landscaping with edible and native plants, every third Saturday, 10 a.m.-noon.
Clermont, KY 40110
KEYWORD EXCLUSIVE: >NATURALISTS IN TRAINING
Interested in becoming a naturalist or interpretive guide so you can share knowledge with others (such as volunteering to lead groups at Bernheim), or you dream of a career as an interpretive guide? Bernheim offers the Naturalists in Training program, or for those who might someday want a career in this area, there's a Certified Interpretive Guide program, for anyone over age 16. To learn more, go to Nature training
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